Wanted: Senior Executive: Must Play Golf ~ Really?

From time to time, I have a little rant.  I’m not sure what triggered this one.  Well, yes I do.  It was a short blog post by Patrick Allmond entitled, “Do I Really have to learn how to play golf in business?”  It made me think.  I hope it, and my thoughts below, do the same for you.


I don’t know when the game of golf became a major player in a person’s professional success.  Nowhere have I seen it written in a job description or in executive search material that the successful candidate must play golf.  And yet, in major organizations across North America, golf has somehow insinuated itself into the corporate culture to the extent that even those who have little facility for the game or inclination to play, are doling out money for clubs, memberships, lessons and other golf accoutrements because they think it will help them get ahead in their careers.

Well, according to some, it will.

In fact, an academic study using data from 1998 to 2004 found that executives, who play golf, typically earn more than those who don’t, especially if they play well.

In 2011, an article entitled, Why Golfers Get Ahead appeared in The Economist.  It makes reference to the above study and talks about the benefits of playing golf with clients and prospects.  It also points out that while executives who play golf tend to be paid more, they do not characteristically earn more in shareholder value.

I found, too, an article in About.com written by Linda Lowen entitled Breaking the Grass Ceiling: Women Playing Golf.  In it, she writes,

“According to the Grass Ceiling Inc. (a consulting group which offers golf workshops for executive level women and minorities), any woman aiming for a senior management position can’t afford not to play”

There seems to be an obvious bias there but nonetheless, statements like this serve to feed the notion that if you are an executive and you want to be successful, you’d better jolly well learn how to play golf.

Okay, so I like golf.  My husband and I used to play.  And, even though I was never very good at it, it helped me learn about myself (the good, bad and ugly); gave me an opportunity to meet people in beautiful surroundings and also enjoy time with my husband.  So what’s not to like?

In business, playing golf with clients helps build networks and valuable relationships.  And, it reveals a lot about one’s character and level of emotional intelligence.  I get that too.

But, my question is this.  How did we get to a place where we allow golf to decide who’s in and who’s out?

None of us should feel that to find success in our business relationships or rise to the executive ranks, we must learn, and play, golf.  Frankly, I find that notion ludicrous and seriously discriminatory.

Golf is a great game.  It is also handy as a business tool for those who enjoy it.   But, it is a game. It should not be a determining factor in a person’s professional success.   Organizational cultures that exclude people either consciously or unconsciously, simply because they don’t play golf need some serious examination.

Perhaps it was a good fit in the 20th Century.  This, however, is the 21st Century. There are an inordinate number of ways to make connections; build business relationships and close deals.  Instead of trying to fit ourselves into an old archetype, surely we can branch out, explore, and learn to value the variety of ways available to us that will give us the results we want.  Besides, there is nothing magical about golf.  To some it is simply “A good walk spoiled”.

What do you think?



Filed under NOWLeadership, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

24 responses to “Wanted: Senior Executive: Must Play Golf ~ Really?

  1. Gwyn, I understand your point(s), but if there is another activity where you can get a client/prospect/business partner to commit 4+ hours to you where the distraction of the activity itself is probably 15 or 20 minutes, please let me know.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jim ~ While there is no doubt there are many benefits to using golf as a way of connecting with clients and prospects, I can’t help but think that we place far too much emphasis on its value, especially in the new economy. Its exclusiveness is even more worrying.

      If, for instance you wanted to spend some time with Mark Zuckerberg, you wouldn’t find him and many of his compatriots on the golf course. Many highly influential people in technology do not play golf. Steve Jobs for instance, would have nothing to do with it.

      Similarly, Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox does not play golf. And, while Virginia Rommetty does, as CEO of IBM and major sponsor at the Masters Tournament, she was recently denied the traditional offer of membership at Augusta National solely on the basis of her gender.

      So, for me, this begs some questions like:

      If you are a salesperson or executive, what market opportunities might you be missing by not broadening your scope of extra curricular activity?

      Does every client or prospect really need four to five hours of your attention at any one time?

      If the study is right and those who play golf while tending to make more money for themselves do not typically add to shareholder value, where is the real value?

      What opportunities are you passing up if you fail to include other talented and experienced people in your organization in client activities simply because their personal interests don’t include golf?

      As to what one would do other than play golf, well I think that depends on the client/prospect/organization you are trying to build a relationship with. What do they value? What causes do they support and involve themselves in? What do they actually want to achieve?

      I just think that in this century, being successful in business will mean going beyond our traditional ways of relating to potential clients who, because of the wonders of technology are more diverse in nature with a variety of interests. Some of them will love to play golf. Others will not. Surely it makes good business sense to include them too.

      Thank you very much for adding your thoughts here. It is much appreciated and will, I hope, start an interesting conversation!

      • Gwyn,

        Tech billionaires tend to be a different breed. Mr. Jobs is no longer with us and I do not know what hobbies Mark Zuckerberg enjoys. I have heard that he kills the animals that he eats. Regardless, when you are looking at movers and shakers from the C Suite, you are looking at people generally having different hobbies/interest than the average person. Classic/exotic cars, world travel (usually first class), yachting, skiing, theater/symphony/opera, scuba diving, fly-fishing, antiques, art, fine dining/wine, flying, show horses/equestrian events, and show dogs are some of the hobbies that are up there on the list along with golf. All of those interest can often be at least, if not more, exclusive than golf. I’m confident with their respective salaries, Ms. Burns and Ms. Rometty can afford those “exclusive” hobbies, and you may very well share one of those hobbies with your client/prospect.

        Regarding the Augusta issue, that is a private club and they can chose to offer, or not offer, memberships at their discretion. As a public corporation, IBM’s senior leadership and board of directors can decide where advertising and sponsorship funds are directed in order to best serve the shareholders and their corporate image.

        I never said that every client/prospect needed to have 5 hours of my attention, or vice versa. However, there is an economy to having that one extended time together in order to build, or solidify, a relationship as compared to a series of 30 or 60 minute meetings. Each meeting has pleasantries, and recaps/rehashes that are not efficient.

        Think about a date. If you go to dinner and a movie versus lunch/brunch and a museum. In the first scenario you are seated, asked about drinks, then appetizers, specials are explained, wines suggested, courses are delivered, how about coffee/dessert, and finally the check comes and you leave. At the movies you sit in silence for two hours and then leave the theater. Two adults have been together for over 3 hours and know little more than they did at the start of the evening aside from food preferences and table manners, or lack thereof.

        On the other hand, brunch/lunch menus a more simple, do not lend themselves to multiple courses and interruptions by the serving staff. You leave and go to the museum and walk around leisurely and can chat about whatever strikes you. For the same investment of time, and probably less capital, both parties probably have a much better understanding of each other and if the relationship should progress.

        Big question is: “What position are you in?” Are you a person that plays golf that has many salespeople vying for your business or the salesperson that doesn’t play golf looking to land that prospect that golfs? If you are the latter, either you need to hunt elsewhere, or find another way to make inroads with that client/prospect. You may win the business for taking the road less traveled (even golfers don’t play just because they are invited by a salesperson)……or you can take golf lessons.


      • Gwyn Teatro

        Jim ~ Thanks for coming back. I find it hard to argue with many of the points you make here. I am not discounting the value of the role Golf can play in building relationships. Nor will I deny there are other activities that can be construed as exclusive. However, if a person feels a certain obligation to play because they believe it to be a major success factor in their career, or is discounted or excluded on the basis that s/he doesn’t play, that’s limiting for both the individual and the organization.

      • Gwyn,

        You mention that a person “feels” & “believes” that it is a major success factor. Why do they “feel” & “believe” that to be a fact. Why single out golf. There are many “choices” that people make because they feel, or it has been communicated to them by consultants/mentors/experts/gurus/etc that “this is needed” to succeed.

        Choice of school, major/minor, what kind of watch/suit/dress to wear, neighborhood where you live, the car you drive. Hiring managers/HR Departments has this list of “success factors/indicators” that are held as gospel. Can you answer the questions that indicate if you are smart enough to work at Google? People want to have many pointless data points by which the feel that they are making an informed decision.

        Unfortunately many play that “game” because they want to get ahead. Everybody is too busy to form the “relationships” that everyone speaks of developing. We are looking for the shortcut. There are no shortcuts. Be honest. Take the time to develop those relationships and you will be successful whether you golf or not.

        Imagine how a client or prospect might respond if you told them that you don’t golf, but would like to go golfing with them because you wanted to get to know them better. I have also found that most people do not golf nearly as well as their tales would indicate.

        I think the idea behind it all is the developing of the relationship and golf is one of the few avenues where you can get that level of time and attention. If you have any other ideas I’d like to hear them.


      • Gwyn Teatro

        Jim ~ I rather think that you and I are not going to get much further in this conversation. My point is not really about golf. I have great respect for the game and its use in business. It is more about being conscious of where we place our focus and the impact it has on individuals in the organization and the market in changing times. No matter the activity, if we place more value on it than it deserves then chances are we’re missing something somewhere else. Your experience clearly shows that this is not the case for you.
        You have been very generous with your time and thoughts. Thank you.

  2. You are completely correct Gwyn, recruitment of corporate talent should really look deeper than just the CV or the sporting codes participated in. The clear exception to this rule might be a senior position that’s actually in a golf related company, where an interest in the game may create more shareholder value than if the individual really was only there for the company perks.

    There’s a reason I play golf; in the 4hrs you are on course you will experience almost every level of human emotion with the other person; sheer elation, utter disappointment, raging at the turn of bad luck or smiling at the mercies of great fortune. There is no way to hide who you really are on a golf course; the greatest con artist will show themselves unwittingly through their on-course behaviors (this has saved me from a bad business deal on more than 4 occasions.)

    Golf is by its nature, a great leveler. The most talented low handicap golfer can be beaten by the least naturally gifted golfer on the day. The handicapping system creates a platform of equality instead of herding the masses into crowds that clearly don’t play at the same level. Try sharing a mountain biking experience with an expert rider when you’re a beginner? Try running a marathon with a prospective customer when you’re an expert at the 20 minutes per mile level.

    Golf should not be the sacrificial lamb that you portray it to be. If the recruiting company feels that its important for the position (for whatever reason, misguided or appropriate) it is not Golf’s fault for being selected. (I imagine it would be slightly problematic and potentially sexist had a recruiter advertised a position with the requirement that the candidate “must enjoy strip clubs and exotic dancers”)

    I question the merit of a study that correlates shareholder value creation to whether an executive plays golf or not. The assumption is that golf has any impact on performance in the office. The fact that the Economist loosely alludes to another study is not prima facie evidence of its accuracy or correctness. In fact the study itself is titled “Illusory correlation…” meaning deceptive or misguided. Are the non-golfers paid less because they don’t play the sport or perhaps because of their industry, their qualifications, the economic circumstances of their company. The ultimate factor that cannot be correlated is the decision-making criteria exercised by the recruiter when doing the hiring of the CEO. There’s a difference between correlation and causality.

    I don’t play golf to do business but I do business more readily with people I have played golf with, because I know them a little better than had we spent the same 4 hours talking over lunch or a boardroom table. Shared experiences create clarity. Thank you for sharing this blog experience with me.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Alistair ~ Thanks for weighing in here. I like how you describe the golf experience. It is indeed a great leveler and one that will separate us from our pretentions every time.
      Dorothy makes an important point from a recruiter’s perspective and that is that sporting skills and hobbies in general have a place in the decision making process as indicators of character and transferrable ability. I expect very few, if any, will be so specific as to base their decision on someone’s ability to play golf however.
      What I observed in my specific business environment though is that at a certain level there was this implicit preference for Senior Managers to play, and those who didn’t had to pedal that much harder to keep up or find other ways to be included. Patrick’s blog post suggested to me that my observation was not limited to the culture of my organization alone.
      I think this warrants some examination in light of a greater need for diversity in just about every aspect of working life.

  3. Hi Gwyn – I play golf but am not a true golfer. For me it’s a social game.

    Golf courses tend to be in nice places and is also a sport for mixed level ability. You’re playing against yourself and the course generally so in that sense it’s more open than other sports. It can also be played well into old age – so another benefit, unlike some activities. Men and women can generally play together ( except for Augusta of course- but that’s a separate rant!) also a plus.

    Usually sporting skills are factored into any hiring decision because they are an indication of focus, discipline, team playing and leadership or simply the God given gift of basic co-ordination. Just as an ability in amateur dramatics suggest other skills. It will depend on the market demographic and position to be filled.

    All sorts of sports are important in corporate culture as we seen in the hospitality sections of tennis, football ( soccer) rugby matches as well as horse -racing and the Olympics. But we also see the same thing at the theatre and opera. If Patrick’s customers and network are all golfers it might be worth it. But I would say the same if they were opera buffs. It’s about being in touch with your market.

    It also depends on a person’s willingness and abilityto leverage those skills for networking purposes. I’ve known excellent golfers belonging to top golf clubs who have no particular interest in, or ability for networking. I’ve also known successful business people who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

    So overall I wouldn’t single golf out. Interetsingly, I posted a LinkedIn poll last week “Has your interest in any particular sport helped advance your career?” Please complete it! http://linkd.in/K0Y6q1

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Dorothy ~ Thanks for adding your voice here. I chose (or maybe I should say, picked on) golf because Patrick’s post triggered some thoughts about organizational beliefs and practices that serve some people but disadvantage others. It’s not really about golf. It’s more about how we open up the possibilities for engagement for both managers and the markets they serve in a world where technology and necessity bring us, and a wide variety of cultures together.
      Your latest post, aimed at women does a great job of examining the role of sport in the workplace and asks some thought-provoking questions. The one that resonates most for me is, “Where does this leave the concept of Diversity?

      • Thanks Gwyn – everyone has special skills, interests, qualities and strengths which can be leveraged professionally and support the networking side and relationship building of career advancement and strategy if they choose to do that. Going in one direction can automatically exclude us from others. For example, I could never be an automotive engineer for obvious reasons!

        So I don’t worry too much about senior executives, they can sort themselves out. It’s a question of identifying with your market and network. I have never heard of really excellent candidates being cut because they don’t have a particular interest. But in some cases it does serve as a key differentiator because it creates a common interest. In one case it was skiing because a main customer was located in the French Alps. If the ability level is high that show cases all sorts of other skills which are worth factoring in.

        All the women I spoke to said that it was an advantage to be informed about male sport, just as my CEO friend watched the Royal Wedding! The real issue would be if we all tried to be the same. Diversity is also based on an understanding of other cultures and demographics.

        The real divide is with genuinely underprivileged demographics who are not able to acquire any skills at all or groups who are genuinely discriminated against. But that is a separate topic and beyond the scope of this post.

      • Gwyn Teatro

        Dorothy ~ I agree, “it’s a question of identifying with your market and network”. If you do that, the “what” of the tool or activity you use to access it really doesn’t matter, whether it is golf or tiddly winks. Changing times demand constant examination and to me that includes questioning the value of some of the more time honoured traditions from time to time, to ensure they continue to serve your purpose and support people in their efforts to achieve the results they want and need.
        Thanks for taking the time to comment so completely here and for sharing the story of your CEO friend and the Royal Wedding. It was heartening to say the least.

  4. What a great discussion! I enjoyed reading the various viewpoints Gwyn’s post and her thoughtful replies stimulated. To me it boils down to how much I am willing to “play the game,” whatever the game is. I might be willing to play golf and watch the Royal Wedding, but not booze it up and gamble in Vegas. It’s all about choices (with the important comment about the underprivileged demographics aside).

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ Yes, it is about choices and for me, it is also about making them more widely available. Thanks for coming by. It’s always nice to see you smiling avatar here.

  5. terry

    Hi Gwyn,

    I enjoyed reading your latest posts after returning from my vacation in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. Your emphasis on communication struck a chord with me. I’ve always seen communication as an equation between talking=listening. Now I see it more as a triangle with more of the emphasis on the audience. If your message does not reach the intended audience,
    then the other two factors do not count for much.

    Though I can’t comment on golf, I do see the parallels between “games” and success at work. Most jobs require that professionals “play the game” in order to move up the ladder. In order to move forward, most employees need to learn the rules of the game of their occupation or work group. On the positive side of golf, some non-profts have much success with raising funds from the recreation and friendships at golf tournaments.

    While on vacation, I heard much about the retirement of Pat Summitt as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers womens basketball team. There were so many positive reviews about her on TV, I thought she must be a great leader. The presenters also commented on Pat Summitt’s
    Definitive Dozen, 12 rules for success that are good ideas for all.

    Thanks for helping me focus on the positive, at work and at play!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry ~ Welcome back. Thank you for your usual thoughtful contribution. Perhaps it is that golf is part of the political structure of an organization and sometimes organizational politics need a little poke to see what happens. That’s what I was trying to achieve in this post. Whether it was successful or not may never be known but it was fun trying 🙂

      And for those unfamiliar with Pat Summitt’s “Definitive Dozen” here they are:http://www.oncourtonline.com/one-on-one/top-of-her-game-pat-summit/page-2

  6. I personally think that this golf idea is really about safety, and a short-cut for many organizations to hire people they don’t have to take too much time to really get to know. In hiring someone who plays a certain sport like golf, I imagine that they’re able to then more easily assume that the person will be of a certain type: goal-oriented, competitive, outgoing, extroverted. That’s the kind of person that management likes to hire for certain positions, because it’s a seemingly logical fit in the short term.

    But, I think you’re right. That’s a pretty 20th century way of looking at it.

    A more 21st century approach would be to rethink the position, not to necessarily find a person out there who fits into it, and then hire based on *personal values*, rather than on specific activities. Is there room to adapt that position in relation to evolving business goals? Can someone who is not the typical alpha male sporto actually get *better* results as those goals evolve over time, and as the position has been adapted to go along with it?

    In short, what can people who *don’t* necessarily play sports, but do have, for instance, an intuitive handle on and passion for the intricacies of human psychology, a highly developed sense of empathy, and a firm understanding of the subtleties of language, all of which play vital roles in the business of networking? What would a company look like with people like that hired into positions which are then geared around their strengths, and made scalable to evolving business goals?

    Maybe fewer sports metaphors in business? Dare we dream?

    Cheers for the post!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Rob ~ I get your meaning. It is easier to do things that have always worked before because it requires less thought. That’s certainly true. I think the alternative you suggest requires more imagination and flexibility. That is something we need to make better use of, so as to draw from the diversity of talent, experience, preferences, perspectives and ideas that will help us “find our feet” in uncertain times.
      Thanks for that. And yes, fewer sports metaphors would be a nice bonus 🙂
      Cheers for the comment!

  7. terry

    Gwyn, Reflecting on these latest themes has me noticing how much of leadership happens under the surface. This past week, the ABC show, the Revolution, did a segment on non-verbal communication. Who looks the most like a CEO, people who relax with their arms over their chairs or those who sit up straight with hands folded? The CEO posture is the person sitting with their arm over the back of the chair because that posture “takes up more space, is relaxed, yet more in command”. The people sitting up straight with folded hands take up less space and seem more subservient.
    So the non-verbal communication and the signals received by the audience are also an important part of the communication equation.

    Another leadership lesson I enjoyed on my vacation was watching the movie Invictus where Morgan Freeman plays the part of Nelson Mandela. Sports became an integral part of the politics and healing of the country. Speaking with conviction, listening, and non-verbal communication all came into play.

    I am really enjoying these spring blooms, however, they don’t last long. Then I’m left with the leaves and the roots, the real working parts of the plants. This makes me think about what was said in the previous reply, so many times leaders are chosen in full bloom, only to fade, while the real supporting roles, the roots and the leaves, are not noticed and tossed out.

    It is fun to think about everyday jobs with a new perspective!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry ~ I love how you bring interesting stories to the discussion. My take on CEO body language is that the gestures and postures we use can be easily replicated. For instance, I learned that when a manager “tented” his fingers when he spoke, it was supposed to mean that he was speaking with authority. However, I have observed some managers taking this posture purposely while talking complete nonsense 🙂
      Yes! Invictus is a great leadership movie. And, here is one story where the leader makes extremely good use of sports to bring people together.
      Your comment about plants as a metaphor for leaders is excellent. It highlights for me the importance of tending to the tender new growth while admiring the beauty of the plant in bloom.
      Thank you for that and for your thoughtful contribution.

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  10. Gwyn – I just saw a link from your post to mine about golf. Thanks for the link. And I love your summary: ” It should not be a determining factor in a person’s professional success.”. I hope we continue to find others ways to connect that don’t require taking a swing at that stupid ball.

    Have a great week.

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